NELP Report and Survey Show California’s Strong Worker Protections are Undercut by Employer Retaliation

California Workers and Advocates Call on Policymakers to Address Rampant Retaliation and Adopt Policies to Shift Power to Workers

A new survey of California’s workforce commissioned by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) reveals a high prevalence of workplace violations; high rates of employer retaliation; and frequent, unfair, and arbitrary firings.

The survey confirms that the fundamental power imbalance between workers and employers – especially under a system of “at will” employment where employers can fire workers for any reason or no reason at all – means employers can and do retaliate against workers who assert their rights, with devastating economic consequences.

This alarming data, combined with in-depth focus group testimonies from workers who are directly affected by employer retaliation, is explained in NELP’s new report, How California Can Lead on Retaliation Reforms to Dismantle Workplace Inequality, calling on California lawmakers to adopt a range of concrete policies, including:

  • Establish a retaliation fund to provide workers with the immediate economic support they need to exercise their rights if they are fired.
  • Adopt a “just cause” policy, which establishes that an employer must show that there is a justifiable reason for firing a worker, to protect workers from arbitrary and unfair firings.

The goal of these policies is to shift the fundamental power balance between workers and employers so that workers can stand up for their rights and take collective action to improve their workplace conditions.

Overall, NELP’s survey findings show that bosses are abusing their power by silencing workers and evading California’s employment laws by threatening to inflict catastrophic financial hardship on workers who speak up. Workers need stronger protections against intimidation and unjust firings starting with a just cause policy, as well as a retaliation fund for financial support if they are fired for speaking up. Without a retaliation fund, California workers will continue to experience financial hardships when they are unjustly fired for bringing attention to violations and calling for improved workplace conditions.

“Workers face such a hard choice when we report wage theft and other abuses,” said Jesus Soto, a member of KIWA (Koreatown Immigrant Worker Alliance), from Long Beach. “If you speak out, you know you could lose your job. But if you don’t, then the abuse continues for you and your colleagues. We need to make it a lot harder for bosses to bully workers who speak out, and when we do speak out, workers need a lot more support.”

“California’s laws providing protections and rights for workers are strong compared to other states, but we know that employers routinely violate the law, and we see from NELP’s survey results and the California Coalition for Worker Power focus groups that workers hesitate to speak up due to very real concerns about being fired or otherwise retaliated against,” said Nayantara Mehta, Director of NELP’s Worker Power program and report co-author. “Advocates and workers are calling on California policymakers to ensure structural fixes to address the imbalance of power in the workplace.”

“California workers, especially workers of color and immigrant workers in low-paying jobs, face intimidation, bullying, and even firing when they stand up for their rights,” said Alexandra Suh, Executive Director of KIWA (Koreatown Immigrant Worker Alliance) and Co-Chair of the California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP) “This retaliation is one of the core reasons workers still experience wage theft, discrimination, and harassment at work – and why California, for all of its strong labor protections, continues to see widespread worker exploitation.”

“As long as bosses can retaliate without consequences,” said Rosalia Manuel, a member of the Fight for 15 and a Union and the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition, from San Jose, “they can easily ignore all the laws that are supposed to protect us: that’s why so many workers still experience wage theft, discrimination, sexual harassment, unsafe work conditions, and abuse, especially immigrant workers and workers of color.”


This report was developed in coordination with the California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP), a coalition of worker centers, unions, and worker advocacy organizations dedicated to ensuring that every worker in California has the power to come together and improve their work conditions and their communities. NELP is a member of the CCWP and works in partnership with coalition members to advocate for policy changes to shift the balance of power in California’s workplaces.

The new survey, conducted by YouGov, included 1,000 workers aged 18-64 across the income spectrum and was representative by age, gender, race, and years of education.

Survey responses revealed a high prevalence of workplace violations; low rates of violation reporting; high rates of employer retaliation; and frequent unfair and arbitrary firings.

Key findings from the report, How California Can Lead on Retaliation Reforms to Dismantle Workplace Inequality, include:

  1. Forty-one percent of California workers have been fired or let go at least once. Less than one third of those workers (29 percent) said they were given fair warning before being fired, and most (64 percent) said they have never received severance pay.
  2. More than 40 percent of workers—including 46 percent of Latinx workers and 55 percent of Black workers—said that concern about being fired or disciplined have prevented them from joining their co-workers to push for job improvements.
  3. Of the workers who reported violations to their employer or to a government agency, a majority (116 of 216 respondents or X percent) experienced employer retaliation.
  4. An overwhelming majority of working Californians—92 percent—support the establishment of a retaliation hardship fund that would provide one-time financial assistance to workers who file good faith complaints about employer retaliation.
  5. A large majority of working Californians of all political parties—81 percent—support the adoption of laws protecting workers from unfair and arbitrary firings.

Additional report findings in NELP’s How California Can Lead on Retaliation Reforms to Dismantle Workplace Inequality can be read here.

NELP and CCWP members and worker leaders will be participating in a Zoom press conference on Wednesday, November 2 at 11am Pacific Time, to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations.

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